Some writers make it feel easy – Grahame Greene. Some let you know that you might have to dig in and hope – Hermann Melville. Some come up at you like nuggets from out of rocks – Christina Stead. Some are brilliant but prone to flash outside the off stump – Balzac. Some just let you know that they are big hitters – Tolstoy. Some just end up over the top – Joyce. Some are all class but leave you wondering what the fuss is about – Flaubert. Some leave you wondering where in Hell that came from – Emily Bronte. And every now and then you come across one who very soon lets you know, and makes you confident, that they have real strength and power. That was certainly the case with Boris Pasternak in Doctor Zhivago – which, to my shame, I had not read before. I find it hard to recall a novel that is so strong and powerful.
A young boy born into Imperial Russia is abandoned by his father and when his mother dies, he is taken in by a kindly uncle. The boy, Yuri Zhivago, who is bright and sensitive, grows up to be a poet and a doctor. (You might think that is an odd coupling, until you recall Keats.) He marries Tonya, who was also a medical student, and they go out to live in the provinces as the war comes.
Lara is a daughter of a Russian woman married to a Belgian. When the husband goes, the mother has an affair with a friend of his, a ruthless man of business and politics – the precursor of the oligarch – who proceeds to defile Lara while she is seventeen and still at school. The mother tries to kill herself, and then Lara tries to kill her lover. The businessman hushes up the affair and Lara marries Pasha who is deeply engaged politically. They too go the provinces. Pasha is thought to have died in the war but he becomes a ruthless killer and a Commissar for the Bolsheviks after the 1917 revolution under the name Strelnikov.
The paths of Lara and Yuri cross, and they eventually fall deeply in love, even after they find that Pasha is still alive as Strelnikov. But it is hard to see how they or their love can survive. It is not just that they are both married – their whole world has been turned upside down by a revolution and a civil war far more barbarous than what France faced after 1789, and which took the French at least a hundred years to get over. Both Lara and Yuri have what we call baggage that the new regime will reject. The times are utterly beyond compassion. If a child goes missing in the country, the parents will fear cannibalism. The icy egoism of Lenin will give way to the murderous paranoia of Stalin. Lara and Yuri strive to keep and treasure what humanity is left to them before they get washed away in the maelstrom. They were not born in the right time or place.
That is a bare outline of a hugely complex story. The number of characters and the variations in the names make the book very hard to read. It is at times like separating the threads of Jackson Pollock’s Blue Poles. But the effect is nearly overwhelming because you get this magical blend of sordid reality set against a feeling of remorseless fate. Even accidents seem inevitable, and the effect is heightened by sudden changes in tempo or revelation. The result is to make the two lovers ‘star-crossed’ in a manner that was perfected in Romeo and Juliet. They are helpless victims and they are no less appealing for that. They are in truth pathetic, and the backdrop for this pathos is the world being turned upside down in the most gruesome way possible.
Here is the author on the new men after the 1917 Revolution. ‘Commissars with unlimited power were appointed everywhere, people of iron will, in black leather jackets, armed with means of intimidation and with revolvers, who rarely shaved and still more rarely slept. They were well acquainted with the petty bourgeois breed, the average holder of small government bonds, the grovelling conformist, and never spared him, talking to him with a Mephistophelian smirk, as with a pilferer caught in the act.’ There were a lot of sans-culottes just like that in Paris in 1793.
Here is the apotheosis of the Commissar: ‘For some unknown reason it became clear at once that this man represented the consummate manifestation of will. He was to such a degree what he wanted to be that everything on him and in him inevitably seemed exemplary; his proportionately constructed and handsomely placed head, and the impetuousness of his stride, and his long legs in high boots, which may have been dirty but seemed polished, and his grey flannel tunic, which may have been wrinkled but gave the impression of ironed linen. Thus acted the presence of giftedness, natural, knowing no strain, feeling itself in the saddle in any situation of earthly existence. This man must have possessed some gift, not necessarily an original one.’ This could be Reinhard Heydrich, a brutal Nazi killer, one of the most evil men ever born. Strelnikov as the Commissar was a brutal killer– but was the husband of Lara evil like Heydrich? Or Stalin? How do ordinary people become cold-blooded killers?
The picture of Strelnikov could also derive from Robespierre. When the pure are corrupted by power, their killing is indeed merciless. Puritanical killers like Cromwell and Robespierre may or may not have been as brutal as, say, Stalin, but their dead are just as dead. Lenin would take after Robespierre, and Stalin was Lenin gone rotten. The book contains slashing insights into the jealous cruelty that is unleashed after centuries of cruel oppression.
There are passages of poetic insight. ‘The cannon-fire behind his back died down. That direction was the east. There in the haze of the mist the sun rose and peeped dimly between the scraps of floating murk, the way naked people in a bathhouse flash through clouds of soapy steam.’ Snow is a recurring image. The hero gets a letter from his distant wife, Tonya. She says of Lara: ‘I was born into this world to simplify life and seek the right way through, and she in order to complicate it and confuse it.’ As it happens, that is fair – but did it have to happen? The letter concludes with Tonya believing that they have come for her execution.
Yuri Andreevich [Zhivago] looked up from the letter with an absent, tearless gaze, not directed anywhere, dry from grief, devastated by suffering. He saw nothing around him. He was conscious of nothing. Outside the window it began to snow. Wind carried the snow obliquely, ever faster and ever denser, as if trying all the while to make up for something and Yuri Andreevich stared ahead of him and through the window as if it were not snow falling but the continued reading of Tonya’s letter, and not dry starlike flakes that raced and flashed, but small spaces of white paper between small black letters, white, white, endless, endless.
Even in translation, that writing has a kind of grace and power that can only come from a writer who is justifiably confident of his own strength. It is a passage that might remind some of a well-known passage by James Joyce in his story called The Dead.* This is the kind of writing that annihilates the boundary between prose and poetry.
The book is shot through with writing that could only come from a writer who is happy to back his judgment. This is how the narrative part of the book ends.
One day Larissa Fyodorovna [Lara] left the house and did not come back again. Evidently she was arrested on the street in those days and died or vanished no one knew where, forgotten under some nameless number on subsequently lost lists, in one of those countless general or women’s concentration camps in the north.
The author was deeply spiritual in the Russian tradition. There is an epistle of Paul that said something to the effect that ‘There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male or female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.’ Pasternak translates that ‘in that new way of existence and new form of communion known as the Kingdom of God, there are no peoples, there are persons.’ This is a proposition that might unsettle a whole lot of people, and it was not well received in some parts of the world. It is hugely liberating for some – including me. (What kind of God, anyway, would want to play favourites?) So is the ethical consequence. ‘To belong to a type is the end of a man, his condemnation.’ That too is so true. .The author goes on: ‘If he doesn’t fall into any category, if he’s not representative, half of what’s demanded of him is there. He’s free of himself, he’s achieved a grain of immortality.’
The author is super-bright, but he knows the dangers of intellectuals finding the answer. He has Yuri saying this: ‘I think philosophy should be used sparingly as a seasoning for art and life. To be occupied with it alone is the same as eating horse-radish by itself.’ He got that right. And he also gets right the fearful impact of the revolution on the lives of persons, and not just peoples. Lara says this to Yuri.
Is it for me a weak woman to explain to you who are so intelligent what is now happening with life in general and why families fall apart, yours and mine between them?….All that’s productive, settled, all that’s connected with habitual life, with the human nest and its order, all of it went to wrack and ruin along with the upheaval of the whole of society and its reorganisation. All everyday things were overturned and destroyed. What remained was the un-everyday, unapplied force of the naked soul, stripped of the last shred, for which nothing has changed, because in all times it was cold and trembling and drawing towards the one nearest to it, which is just as naked and lonely. You and I are like Adam and Eve, the first human beings, who had nothing to cover themselves with when the world began, and we are now just as unclothed and homeless at its end. And you and I are the last reminder of all those countless great things that have been done in the world in the many thousands of years between them and us, and in memory of those vanished wonders, we breathe and love and weep, and hold each other, and cling to each other.
This is a novel of immense strength, beauty, and humanity.
Nor had I seen the movie, which is very famous, and, apparently, the eighth most seen movie ever made. It was a great effort by David Lean to get this complex book on to the screen, and it had to be uncomfortably long. The stars, Omar Sharif and Julie Christie, shine very brightly, but they have to stand against two of the best screen actors ever, Alec Guinness and Rod Steiger (as the loathsome seducer.) Steiger is viciously seductive in the power he maintains over Lara throughout the film, and you wonder if she is a kind of allegory for Russia, that just continues to swap real bastards as its rulers. I might say that for both the book and the movie, Lara was for me the moving force. It is one thing to be seduced by your mother’s lover while you are still at school – it is another thing to call on a society function on Christmas Eve and try to shoot the bastard. In some curious way, Lara seemed to me to have a fair bit of Heathcliff in her, but this is not easy to put on screen. Tom Courtenay is the bespectacled and antiseptic Strelnikov who has the signature line: ‘The personal life is dead in Russia.’ You can see that sad truth now every day in Russia in the ugly face of Vladimir Putin.
*Here is the final paragraph of The Dead, which occurs after the wife of the narrator has just told him in bed that a young man called Michael Fury had in her youth had a crush on her and had died for it.
A few light taps upon the pane made him turn to the window. It had begun to snow again. He watched sleepily the flakes, silver and dark, falling obliquely against the lamplight. The time had come for him to set out on his journey westward. Yes, the newspapers were right; snow was general all over Ireland. It was falling on every part of the dark central plain, on the treeless hills, falling softly upon the Bog of Allen and, farther westward, softly falling into the dark mutinous Shannon waves. It was falling, too, upon every part of the lonely churchyard on the hill where Michael Fury lay buried. It lay thickly drifted on the crooked crosses and headstones, on the spears of the little gate, on the barren thorns. His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.